Mark Solovey

Jul 25, 2022

Social Science for What? (Part 1 of 2)

Battles over Public Funding for the "Other Sciences" at the National Science Foundation

MIT Press 2020

This is part one of a two part interview.

"The social sciences have prospered best in the federal government where they have been included under broad umbrella classifications of the scientific disciplines. … In close company with scientific areas which enjoy the prestige and status of biological or physical sciences, the social sciences have enjoyed a protection and nourishment which they normally do not have when they are identified as such and stand exposed, 'naked and alone.'"

— Harry Alpert, sociologist and first social science policy architect, 1960 (Solovey: Ch. 1 lead-in)

In the early Cold War years, the U.S. government established the National Science Foundation (NSF), a civilian agency that soon became widely known for its dedication to supporting first-rate science. The agency's 1950 enabling legislation made no mention of the social sciences, although it included a vague reference to “other sciences.” Nevertheless, as Mark Solovey shows in this book, the NSF also soon became a major—albeit controversial—source of public funding for them.

Solovey's analysis underscores the long-term impact of early developments, when the NSF embraced a “scientistic” strategy wherein the natural sciences represented the gold standard, and created a social science program limited to “hard-core” studies. Along the way, Solovey shows how the NSF's efforts to support scholarship, advanced training, and educational programs were shaped by landmark scientific and political developments, including McCarthyism, Sputnik, reform liberalism during the 1960s, and a newly energized conservative movement during the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, he provides a balanced assessment of the NSF's relevance in a “post-truth” era.

Solovey's study of the battles over public funding is crucial for understanding the recent history of the social sciences as well as ongoing debates over their scientific status and social value. In this first part of two episodes the professor takes us from the mid-1940s up to the tumultuous 1960s and the (ultimately unsuccessful) legislative proposal for a National Social Science Foundation. Look for the second part which moves from the late 1960s' controversy over Project Camelot up through the dark days of the Reagan years, culminating in a call to revive discussion about the need to create a new federal agency, a National Social Science Foundation.

An open access edition of Social Science for What?: Battles over Public Funding for the "Other Sciences' at the National Science Foundation (MIT Press, 2020) was made possible by generous funding from the MIT Libraries.

Mark Solovey is professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. His research focuses on the development of the social sciences in the United States, and especially the controversies regarding the scientific identity of the social sciences, private and public funding for them, and public policy implications of social science expertise. He has written and co-edited a number of books related to the Cold War and social science history.

Keith Krueger lectures in the SILC Business School at Shanghai University.

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